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Café to Café

Il Terrazzo Carmine and Intermezzo

Italian immersion continues

Carmine Smeraldo opened Il Terrazzo Carmine in October 1984, 30 years ago. He intended it to be a lasting part of Seattle's culinary landscape and even talked about opening a location in Bellevue, according to his son CJ. He would certainly be happy with how the family is leading the business forward.

After Carmine's death in 2012, his wife Maria and sons CJ and Philip stepped up and weathered the sea change. They decided to honor his accomplishment by continuing to serve classic Italian food to long-time friends and introduce it to new guests. "Phil and I worked here over the years, peeling potatoes, washing dishes, bussing tables," recalls CJ. "As we got older, I learned the front desk and worked with servers. Phil worked the kitchen line and learned the back of the house. Our mom owned a restaurant, Café Felipe, in Occidental Park in Pioneer Square, before she met dad. She knows and understands this business. She had the restaurant from 1985 to 1990. She helped dad at Il Terrazzo throughout the years. It's good that she had so much experience; she was a rock for the staff." While it may seem fairly seamless, the family has worked hard to make it seem that way. "People have expectations; we can't rest on our laurels. We want to continue to meet or exceed dad's standard for customers. He always said that it could take 20 years to build a reputation but just a few weeks or months to destroy it. We're very cognizant of that."

CJ, Maria and Philip, courtesy of Il Terrazzo Carmine

CJ always knew he wanted to be part of the family business - some day. "It just happened sooner than expected. Because dad had little education (his parents took him out of third grade to work and bring money into the family) it was important to him that his children get an education. We had to finish college, so our time working at the restaurant dropped. I graduated from UCLA in business and economics/finance. Phil is in his last year at the UW at the Foster School of Business. I'm now working full-time at the restaurant. It's good to be partners and brothers; we trust and respect each other. Continuing the business wouldn't be possible without full agreement within the family." CJ worked at Canlis for a year after graduating. "I got a fresh perspective on how to move forward. The Canlis brothers have ushered an iconic institution into the next generation, which is what we are doing. I learned from them to never lose your core values: what makes you you. You have to hold onto the essence of what makes people like you. It's about the whole experience, keeping that intact. They do a good job of that."

Il Terrazzo has a new energy. "We have an experienced staff who are eager to take on new challenges," says CJ. That's what allowed them to open Intermezzo in June 2014, a cicchetti (tapas), wine and cocktail bar in the same building. "We want to introduce the next generation of diners to what our family has been doing for 30 years. The street front helps them find us, and the casual food attracts a crowd that doesn't know our more formal restaurant. It's a creative outlet for our chef, Juan Vega. When he took over as Il Terrazzo's executive chef, he'd already been with us for 15 years. When I was young, I'd want to watch the chef. And my dad would say 'don't watch the chef, watch Juan.' He knows everything about this menu and gets to be creative on specials, within the framework of what dad set up. At Intermezzo, he can create brand new items and change the menu."

Bar at Intermezzo, courtesy of Intermezzo Carmine

They're close to finalizing another big step: Carmine's in Bellevue in 2016. "We have the expertise and the right people around us to make this happen. The location fronts on Bellevue Downtown Park and mom would like to see limestone floors, a courtyard feel, white linens, and lots of vegetation. It will definitely be an Italian restaurant, just not Il Terrazzo. It will have our flavor, but the presentation and overall concept will be updated and twisted. While our base sauces won't change, we'll take more risks. All pastas will be fresh and made in house. Dad felt that some dried pastas were better for consistency, but we make our own ravioli, cannoli, and special pastas. In Bellevue we'll be able to make all fresh pasta." Italian wines rule at Il Terrazzo. At Carmine's, CJ is looking to round out the list. "The list needs to reflect the space. It won't be a traditional country villa. Food and wine need to play to the space."

Dining room at Il Terrazzo Carmine

A potential change could impact Il Terrazzo. Their current building owners want to put up a 10-11 floor building where Il Terrazzo's courtyard and the parking garage sit. This could change the light and feel of the restaurant and take away valet parking. "They are not at a point where they can tell us what the impact will be, so we can't make any decisions yet," explains CJ. "If it impacts our business in a negative way, we will need to do something. There will be a large space in the new building with a waterfront view, but we can't seriously consider anything until we know more."

What CJ does know is that Il Terrazzo Carmine will always be a classic Italian restaurant. "People see fine dining aspects-ambiance, service-and think 'wow, this is a commitment.' But we have 70+ items on the menu and you can have a multi-course meal or a bowl of pasta. You always have your own experience here, not ours. We're here to fulfill our guests' wishes. I've never seen a more accommodating kitchen than ours. It's about what we can do for our guests. That's our family and our mission."

Pasta courtesy of Il Terrazzo Carmine

Il Terrazzo Carmine and Intermezzo
411 1st Ave S
Seattle, WA 98104
Valet parking at Merrill Place Parking Garage on King Street after 5 p.m.

Il Terrazzo: 206-467-7797
Intermezzo: 206-588-2430

CJ Smeraldo

Carmine's Potential Bellevue location
88 102nd NE
Bellevue, WA 98004

Click here to read the family history

Connie Adams/February 2015

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Revolve True Food & Wine Bar


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